The Interview: Ann Wu, Sunell
Ann Wu, founder and general manager, Sunell.
Ann Wu is co-founder and general manager of security electronics manufacturer, Shenzhen Sunell. We met Ann at the Sunell office in Shenzhen to chat about the company’s history, latest technologies and to take a look at some product in the showroom. A warm personality with a quick smile and a global business sense, Ann is most at home talking product and technology.
JA: Sunell is one of China’s pioneering electronic security manufacturers – when did you start the business, Ann?
AW: Sunell was founded in 1997 – that’s 22 years ago. We are among the oldest Chinese CCTV manufacturers still in operation – many people probably don’t know we used to distribute cameras and alarm systems from Philips and Scantronics – we also supplied OEM products for Hills in Australia. We do DCN, public address (PA) and CCTV and for part of our history we were among the largest suppliers of many of these products in China.
JA: Does Sunell manufacture all its own solutions – hardware, software?
AW: We do everything ourselves – we always have. We run our own factory near Shenzhen, and we have our own R&D team in-house. That part of the business is the area that has grown the most, I think. Our R&D department used to have only 20 software engineers and now it has 167 software engineers out of a total of 206 in the R&D department. We also have a team of 230 in the factory – not so many as the bigger manufacturers but a reasonable size compared to manufacturers outside China.
JA: As well as building your cameras and other security products, do you also design them yourselves?
AW: Yes, we design everything ourselves, from mechanical components, hardware, software, NVRs and our management platform and our thermal cameras and analytics, our face recognition module – we have just developed a new one of these – everything is designed inhouse by Sunell.
JA: How many branches do you have around China?
AW: In terms of our operations in China we have 2 floors here in Shenzhen for R&D, product testing, sales and service, marketing and finance, as well as management, and we have our own manufacturing facility a little way out of town. We also have 6 branch offices around China.
JA: Could you walk our readers through the engineering and R&D parts of the facility?
AW: Absolutely – this area is for software development – getting a bit crowded now and we will need to expand to another floor. You can see we don’t have the perfect panoramic view for the hardware engineers to test cameras, so there have been requests to move this department to a higher level. To have water, buildings, trees in the camera views would be better. Over here is the testing room, which allows us to create different lighting conditions. We recently did a project for Australia and tested the cameras using Australian light temperatures. Outside the light is not much different between countries, but inside there is a significant difference in colour temperature.
If you come through this door, you’ll see our R&D testing room. Every new product we develop goes in here for at least 2 months for testing before we get into production – it’s very hot inside! We track every aspect of product performance to ensure there are no problems with the design – if there’s an issue we can track it and the engineers can resolve it. Over here is our reliability lab. It’s for testing, burning in, water ingress testing, low temp, soak test to ensure we can install our products near beaches – this facility is constantly in use.
We also have a small manufacturing facility for building samples to make sure the product is easy to install and to allow us to check engineering issues before production moves to the factory. And we build thermal through here in our thermal camera production room – in this room we can produce about 480 thermal cameras every month – it’s a small space but it is very efficient. We have a full range of IP cameras – bullets, domes, PTZs.
JA: What attracted you to the security industry as a business, Ann, did you see an opportunity back in 1997?
AW: Before we launched Sunell I had no idea about the security industry at all! My husband was general manager with an early Chinese security manufacturer. After this experience he decided we would enter the security market as a manufacturer. There was a lot of hard work involved, but I think we were also lucky with timing. I came to Shenzhen after graduation from university and when my husband started talking about us founding a security business, I followed him into it – there was no plan on my part. There were just the 3 of us at the start and we grew.
JA: What’s the structure of the business – is it just the 2 of you as owners?
AW: We are still the largest shareholders in the business, and we have one private investor. I do give small numbers of shares to employees to reward them for their efforts and to keep them working with us. It’s a good structure – there are no internal politics, no conflicts, there’s no external noises and no bothering. We can focus entirely on the business. My husband has not been directly involved in Sunell for 4 years now, so at the senior management level I look after everything and make all the decisions myself. It’s a very simple family business and I’ve been lucky enough to retain all our top management for nearly 12 years. We are stable with key staff and that’s the way it’s been for a long time.
JA: The current market is very competitive – what sort of challenges do you face as a smaller manufacturer?
AW: There have been challenges along the way, but I think if we had not had to face those challenges, we would find it hard to face the intense competition right now. We are getting stronger – we may not be as large or successful as some other companies, but we are very healthy, organized, strong and we are not controlled by external shareholders or chasing after share prices.
JA: What are the risks of the current market in your opinion?
AW: As an entrepreneur it’s possible to take too much risk – to mortgage shares in a successful but modest-margin business and reinvest this capital in areas where it seems easier to make money. This is not something we do. I am happy with a reasonable margin and stable growth based on clever products, and to focus on our core business without diversifying. We have a very different style to other companies.
JA: Would you say you have more of an engineering focus?
AW: We can’t only focus on engineering – I would say that I prefer focusing on product and solutions that meet our clients’ requirements – even to the point of customisation. Being privately-owned and with a flat organizational structure we can also move quickly to strategically plan and develop products or new technologies if we see decent opportunities, while still staying up with the main stream. We have done this successfully with AI, as well as with thermal and analytics.
JA: You’ve mentioned thermal a few times – I didn’t know Sunell manufactured thermal but that’s obviously a big part of what you do?
AW: Yeah, it’s getting bigger – we have our own analytics for thermal cameras, too, and we developed those ourselves. Our solutions are robust and they’re affordable – it’s an area we are getting stronger in. Niche suppliers can do a decent job combining optical, thermal, IP and algorithms. Thermal is ideal for larger sites – particularly mining. Thermal is fully integrated with Milestone and Genetec, which makes it more appealing for end users protecting larger sites. We are good at thermal and strong with integration with the big players – it’s something that’s a differentiator for Sunell. It’s something we would especially like to highlight to Australia if we could find the right distribution partner.
JA: Are you most involved in government or corporate work?
AW: As a private company we deal with other private companies and don’t get involved with government projects directly. We are very focused on making products and solutions to meet the specific needs of private sector customers.
JA: Given Sunell’s focus is the commercial sector, which verticals do you consider to be the core of the business?
AW: We focus on commercial and enterprise applications and don’t approach huge city level projects. For overseas markets our strategy is to work with channel distributors and not to get involved into projects directly. We can do this as we have the full range from optical, to thermal, and from analogue to IP, with some niche highlights. And have the RD capability to customize.
Our market focus also depends on the country, but we have done well in education applications with our thermal solutions in China and in Europe. We install our thermal/optical ‘Panda’ camera with analytics in primary schools and kindergartens which allows management to provide a safe and secure environment. I love the design of this camera. It’s bi-spectrum with face recognition in the optical and thermal cameras, as well as body temperature detection for intrusion. It’s very popular in Scandinavia but in America they prefer a more industrial design.
We are also strong in fisheye cameras – again we developed these ourselves. We make a lot of customised fisheye cameras designed for transport applications. We also supply speed domes to customers outside China – markets like Korea, Finland, Russia. And we also create products for smart community applications. We carefully select limited verticals in China while working with channels partners in the global markets we enter.
JA: What’s this camera over here, Ann? That’s a seriously huge view!
AW: We designed that camera for shopping centres in Europe – it has a 720-degree angle of view.
JA: Obviously AI and analytics are important for many security applications today – as is face recognition. Are you developing face recognition solutions?
AW: We are doing a lot of face recognition development right now – we have shipped over 20,000 face recognition cameras around China so far. Our cameras use our own AI module that we developed here at Sunell. It’s certainly an area of growth, not only here in China but globally.
JA: Outside China many perceive Chinese manufacturers as being interchangeable but having visited 5 in one week it’s obvious they are all very different in their focus and even in their business culture. Would you agree with that?
AW: Chinese manufacturers are very competitive with each other – each wants to do things in its own way and to be dominant at whatever it does. But certainly, they are each very different, as you say.
JA: Although it’s a niche manufacturer, Sunell is a global business isn’t it – what’s your distribution model?
AW: Yes, we are global because we can offer the full range of solutions from optical to thermal, analogue to IP and we have some highlights, as I mentioned earlier. In Europe and elsewhere we differentiate by having only 1 national distributor, which is not the usual way for Chinese manufacturers. We take our time and select a very good master distributor then help them to develop sub distributors. I think in this way we are different. I am happy with steady growth – no one can push us for huge growth numbers. This means I can make decisions after taking time for careful thought and work to build the business without being desperate for numbers at any cost. We are not squeezed to have 50 per cent growth annually but we do best to help partners hit reasonable targets. They make money and so do we.
JA: Do you have plans to bring Sunell product to the Australian market?
AW: I certainly see Australia as a market with strong potential for the growth of optical and thermal solutions, especially thermal, particularly in areas like mining and government – big projects. I see the business in Australia as being similar to our business in European countries. There are a lot of me-too products being manufactured by many companies that are distributed widely. We are not making war in that space. Instead we look to differentiate – we see our bi-spectrum range as being a differentiator and a strength. Our products are capable and affordable.
JA: Ann, what advice would you give to other businesses after your 22 years in the rapidly changing security technology sector?
AW: I have no right to give advice, but I could share my life experience: Have a stable responsible team and be good with cash flow – that’s the key part. Be happy with stable growth in order to build the business and to build the businesses of your distributors – take a life-long view. Focus your efforts on the areas you are good at and that you really love. In our case, we have always concentrated on video and looking for niches where our mature systems, in-depth experience, quicker turn-around, high efficiency and business integrity give us an overall advantage over bigger competitors.